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Illustration by Oscar Bray

Why You Can’t Always Debate Everything

The assumption that the only way to find objective truths about social issues is through fair and robust debate and reason ignores the fact that someone’s worth is not defined by their ability to rationally explain and prove themselves to you.

Nov 9, 2019

As a liberal arts university with one of the most internationally diverse student bodies imaginable, NYU Abu Dhabi has and will continue to have to deal with difficult conversations about identity. There will always be debates and opinions formed about identity groupings regardless of gender, race, sexuality or any other category. One particular theme I have noticed in discussions about minority groups is the idea that instead of dismissing bigotry and ignorance, there should be a focus on educating people.
Within these calls to educate others, there is an underlying assumption that the only way to find objective truths about social issues is through fair and robust debate using the purest logic, facts and reason. Emotion has no place in these discussions because “facts don’t care about your feelings”. Instead, everybody should have an equal say and present their arguments in a calm manner, remaining detached and not letting pesky emotions get in the way. The free market of ideas is a meritocracy and the most logically sound arguments always win, or at the very least, that is how the rationale goes.
Make no mistake: intellectual debates absolutely have a place in the discourse and are capable of being powerful forces for credibility and change. It takes a lot of time and patience to teach anything, let alone issues as complex as the politics of identity, and I commend those who do so on a regular basis and aspire to the standard they set. However, people are complicated and sometimes the paragon of rational and educational discourse can’t be reached.
For one thing, the education argument assumes that everyone can be persuaded and made to learn. The unfortunate reality is that people don’t always argue in good faith. You could give the best arguments possible and provide the most comprehensive resources imaginable, and they would still plug their ears and spew the same talking points when it is all over. This usually comes down to intellectual laziness and an unwillingness to admit defeat. That is not to say that people like this cannot change their minds, but it will take a lot more work than most people have time for, and they will most likely refuse to listen if they aren’t close to the person they’re arguing against anyway. You have to choose your battles wisely.
Even if people asking questions and calling for civil discourse do have good intentions, there are other reasons why they may not get the engagement they desire. For one thing, a lot of the discourse around identity issues depends on upholding impossible standards, such as differently abled people having to prove their worth outside of traditional standards of “ability,” or a trans person having to convince others that they are of the gender they identify with. Here’s a thought experiment: assuming that sex and gender are separate things, try and prove that you are cisgender. You’ll find that it’s just as impossible as proving that you’re not currently dreaming or that you have thoughts. We need to appreciate that more often than not, questions of identity are more philosophical than scientific, so we shouldn’t expect those under scrutiny to give simple answers.
Moreover, members of minorities are still in the position of being an “other” in society. So, the pressure is always on them to argue from the perspective of the dominant culture. Concepts like microaggressions, gender dysphoria and domestic violence against men are difficult to explain because there is no frame of reference for them. Sometimes, even the best attempts at education leave both parties unsatisfied.
Another often-forgotten reason that some people seem unwilling to discuss social issues is that it can be emotionally draining. It is easy to forget that when we conduct theoretical discussions of identity, or as philosopher Talia Betcher puts it, “we’re talking about people — people who are in the room, people who are trying (and succeeding) to philosophize themselves.” A black person explaining what microaggressions are may have to extensively unpack an example they experienced. If a man is raped by a woman and goes to the police, they may have to explain why what happened to them counts as rape. You could be asking an American gay person who was rejected by their family to prove that there is still homophobia in the Western world. Is it any wonder that people are rejecting the notion that their lives are up for debate?
The barriers experienced when trying to educate others about social issues take many forms, from subtle policing to blatant rejection. For instance, respectability politics — the idea that minority groups must act according to dominant standards of civility in order to be treated fairly — was codified by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, an Afro-American studies scholar, and is still an extremely relevant topic in discussions of black activism. In a different example of hindering attempts at education, recently posters for a Women’s Leadership Network event have been torn down around the campus in what is believed to be a targeted attack. This shows that even attempts to have discussions that are approved within the metric of education and civility can be eroded in various ways.
Again, this is not to say that discussions about difficult topics should turn into a cuddle party, and I would encourage people to educate each other and themselves as much as they feel they need to. At the same time, not everyone has the capacity to be your “woke” mentor. Some people are tired, hurt and angry because we see the same bad faith arguments made by bad faith actors over and over again. We are treated as statistics and stereotypes at every turn, and if an occasional salty word ever slips out, we are scolded by those who see debates about our identities, rights and lives as a spectacle.
People are more than their opinions and labels, and someone’s worth isn’t defined by their ability to explain and prove themselves to you. It would be nice if we lived in a world that didn’t categorize everyone arbitrarily, but we don’t. And as a result, identities do play an important part in our lives. We don’t have a choice in this matter, but we do have a choice in how to respond when those identities are invoked and defended.
What battles will you pick? How are you going to educate yourself?
Oscar Bray is a staff illustrator. Email him at
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